Hunter and Hunted: The Most Primal Plot Device
Updated: Jan 26, 2021
Something Comedian Paul Rodriquez said about hunting is often quoted, although it doesn’t stop anyone who likes hunting from doing their thing: “Hunting is not a sport. In a sport, both sides should know they’re in the game.”
You can play around with this concept by only slowly revealing the hunter so that the hunted are initially unaware of the threat and unprepared for it. A campy but wonderfully successful example is the first Jurassic Park movie (and to a lesser extent the sequels). No one goes to that island expecting they’ll be hunted by tyrannosaurs, but soon enough, they are fleeing for their lives. What does that feel like?
Stalked by a Mountain Lion
I remember going to a remote spot in a park on the coast north of San Francisco for a picnic with friends. We parked and walked in and had just spotted a wild and scenic spot to stop and eat when I noticed something moving in the long grass uphill. I stopped and stared as the grass rippled in a moving line. Something was following us. In fact, it seemed to be stalking us. When it went over a small ridge, I was able to see parts of it above the grass for a brief second. The tawny ears set on a very large feline head were six or seven feet in front of the tip of the tail that twitched above the grass. A Mountain Lion was closing in on us.
That feeling upon realizing this was purely primal. Adrenaline rushed through me, but at the same time, I thought really hard about staying cool and casually turning my party around without letting the lion know we’d noticed. Our panic might have produced a new hunting behavior in response. So we walked casually back to our car with the distinct feeling that eyes were following our every step. It wasn’t until the car doors were closed, the engine started, and I’d turned the car around that we felt any relief from the fear that had gripped us.
Wouldn’t that be a great scene for a story?
Write from the Hunter’s Viewpoint?
Or your main character can be a hunter. Maybe he hunts in some traditional way. For instance, imagine a Native American moving silently through the forest, bow at the ready, on the trail of deer. (For details of his or her gear and methods, you might try looking up old descriptions of Yani, who taught anthropologists from U.C. Berkeley about the Yana people’s traditions, language, and hunting techniques.) Try to bring the tension and focus of a real hunt to life in your prose. Now, switch it up with a plot twist. for instance, what if there is some sort of rift or fold in time and your hunter is suddenly in our future, not our past? Imagine some setting where popping up with a bow and arrows might get you in serious trouble and force you to run away from police or something of that sort.
Compose a ‘Hunter v. Hunted’ Vignette
I believe that writing is learned by writing and that tackling lots of varied prompts is the basic training writers need. That’s what I do with my students when I run a writing workshop or class. As for grammar and rules, I blow right past those until it’s time to share what we’ve written. Then we may pause to dissect word choice or sentence structure. I think students most naturally improve their writing skills through editing their own work and helping to edit others’.
Whether you make your protagonist the hunter or the hunted (or flip their roles part way through), this most primal of plots can move your story along wonderfully and test your characters in ways that bring out their strengths, weaknesses, and fears. And a hunter v. hunted scene doesn’t have to be the entire plot. It can be the focus of an act or chapter: one part of a broader story arc. Maybe your protagonist is solving the mystery of a who-done-it and so is, as it were, a hunter of truth. But then things go wrong and they are at risk of becoming the next victim…
Most participants in writing workshops or classes aren’t writing a novel, so they don’t need to work out how a hunting scene fits into the broader story arc. They can simply create a dramatic vignette (depending on how much time you have for writing, maybe even a very short story?). Encourage them to try to evoke the excitement and fear of the hunt, and to bring the scene to life with (chilling) detail.
In the downloadable PDF (available upon request) I’m adding is about Peregrine Falcons and Rock Doves (the common pigeons we see in our cities). Pigeons are the main food of the Peregrines that have begun to nest on tall buildings and make cities their homes. It’s fascinating to read about these two antagonists and how they hunt and evade. Theirs is a variant of the dance of hunter and hunted, and it is as always an intricate and tense dance.
Enjoy your writing. And enjoy the hunt!
– Alex Hiam, author of Silent Lee and the Secret of the Side Door Key are available on Amazon.